Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle

Desmond Seward reviews an exciting narrative of medieval slaughter

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Reviewed by: Desmond Seward
Author: George Goodwin
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20

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This fine book’s title is no misnomer. The battle that took place near Towton (eight miles south-west of York) on Palm Sunday 1461 between at least 20,000 Lancastrians and 16,000 Yorkists, to decide whether Henry VI or Edward IV should be king, was the most vicious ever fought on English soil.

The story has never been told so well or so excitingly. The author explains the origins of the conflict between York and Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, that would never have happened but for the inadequacy of the childlike, schizophrenic Henry VI, whose regime was discredited by the loss of English France and by Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450.

The refusal of the clique that controlled Henry to let Richard, Duke of York govern the realm ended with the duke claiming the throne and in a murderous civil war which was won at Towton by his charming, ruthless son, the 19-year-old Edward IV.

Outnumbering their opponents – the Yorkist Duke of Norfolk did not arrive until late in the afternoon – and ably commanded by the Duke of Somerset, the Lancastrians occupied an impregnable position at Towton, on high ground with one flank guarded by marsh and the other by the Cock Beck.

Undaunted, Edward attacked at 10am. As he did so, a blizzard broke out, blinding the Lancastrians, making their arrows fall short, which gave the Yorkist archers a deadly advantage.

In desperation, Somerset attacked down hill and for 12 hours both sides hacked, stabbed and bludgeoned each other at close quarters. Even after Norfolk arrived, attacking their
flank, the Lancastrians fought on grimly in the dark. Finally they broke, however, running through the snow.

Yet without the blizzard they would probably have won.

There was little hope of escape and none in surrender. So many fugitives drowned trying to cross the Cock Beck that one spot is still known as the ‘Bridge of Bodies’. King Edward ordered the immediate execution of 42 captured knights, while countless humbler prisoners suffered the same fate. (In 1996 a pit was found at Towton that contained the skeletons of one such group, cut down in cold blood.)

An area six miles long and more than three miles broad was covered with bodies. Overall, the number who were killed may have been as high as 28,000.

George Goodwin rightly argues that while Towton can claim to be the biggest, longest and bloodiest English battle, what really marks it out is “its brutality, its final casual indifference to the rules of war and of humanity”.  

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Desmond Seward is the author of The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason – The Secret Wars Against the Tudors (Constable, 2010)